Writing as catharsis

Using a Zen-perspective to defuse depression

Posted in Buddhism, Philosophy, psychology, Ranting and rambling, self-knowledge by Lachlan R. Dale on March 31, 2013
A mandala drawn by Carl Jung, from his recently-published Red Book

A mandala drawn by Carl Jung, from his recently-published Red Book

As of late I have been plagued by emotional turmoil. I’ve had a sense of being cut adrift to oscillate between poles of elation and depression; and I have been increasingly frustrated by my failure to work through these oscillations. I have tried to remain conscience of the changes in my mental state so I might observe the duration and depth of each swing; an attempt to identify patterns and overall trends that might provide some insight into my condition. I awake some days soaring, my spirits in the highest realm, filled with beaming gratitude for even being alive. Other days however, I am pulled down into depression and defeat, and wallow there.

I am largely a stranger to depression; it is not something I experience often. What I have found most troubling about this period is that my writing and my thoughts have largely failed to reach the high planes of philosophy where they once regularly did. (I consider that philosophic detachment to be the highest, most rewarding and most desirable state I can attain). It is though, aside from a supremely memorable exception, I have been too engrossed in the direct world of my emotions to achieve the level of cool detachment and mental clarity required to reach this state. To have such a long period lacking in philosophic contemplation is uncharacteristic of me.

I have therefore been looking for tools, ideas and practices that might help defuse my negative emotional states (anxiety, depression), and set me on more beneficial and enjoyable mindsets. Yesterday, while enjoying a coffee and my morning read, I had a minor epiphany that may have provided me with a much-needed key.

But first, a preface.

Why and when is philosophy useful to an individual?

When we read philosophy we are essentially coaxing our minds to comprehend an alternate perspective. This perspective might be highly personal, or it might be a collective conceptual perspective built up over years of development.

While philosophising professionally, or for the sake of academia might be enjoyable, I believe that philosophy is of most value when what we are reading resonates deeply with our own life; when our reading provides us with practical tools to help us live our lives better, more fully and more contently. When we can relate deeply to another’s perspective, we can walk the cow-paths of their thought, taking notes to familiarise ourselves with the route. Given enough time and reflection, we can begin to construct mental scaffolding using their words. Over more time still, we can begin to accrue enough scaffolding to build bridges between concepts and schools of thought; perhaps ultimately developing new, unifying concepts and lashing once separate pockets of wisdom together.

I have had this experience with philosophy often – it is exactly why I keep returning to it. At various times a mind-expanding concept has come out of scientific rationalism (our beloved New Atheists), cosmology, mysticism, psychedelia, Carl Jung’s psychology (particularly mythology, dream interpretation and the collective unconscious), Hermann Hesse’s philosophy, Colin Wilson’s conception of nihilism, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, post-modernism, and Wade Davis’ anthropology — but now it is Alan Watt’s explanation of the nature of Zen that has become my latest useful framework.

What is Zen?

I have been living with a real problem that demands a practical solution (depression, anxiety); and I believe that by regular adoption of the perspective of Zen (perhaps coupled with meditation) I can escape powerlessness in the face of these emotional states.

I’ll quote in passing the passage I scrawled in my notebook when the epiphany hit:

Perhaps what I need to focus on is my understanding of the basic principle of Zen; harmony with existence (and other beings; the chain of causation; our sense of existential powerlessness). My sense of anxiety seems to be rooted in childish self-doubt and anticipation. Is this not a clear instance of ill-spent energy; a wasteful psychological habit that drains my life and puts stress in my jaw? And is it not unnecessary?

When I observe these problems from a perspective of Zen, my anxiety is rendered inconsequential and erroneous. Fighting against inevitability or reality simply becomes childish in this light – an aberration that should be replaced by what I have long regarded my basic philosophic principles; humility-towards and acceptance-of existence.

At its simplest Zen is a framework that aims to allow an individual to move with the flow of life and change in the universe. It breeds an awareness and acceptance of the Eternal Becoming (the “constantly changing apocalypse” that Aldous Huxley observed on mescaline). It is a state of humility, receptivity and awareness.

Zen shares an interesting root with nihilism; both are essentially responses to the realisation that we are ultimately powerless and inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe – but where nihilism turns to despair and inaction, Zen transitions into life-affirmation. Zen recognises that a response of despair is little but a selfish demand of the ego, and that that is the root of the problem (not our powerlessness, but our ego’s deluded demand to be powerful), for the ego does not represent the whole of our selves. Nihilists, however, allow their ego to be locked in a death-struggle against this inevitability, and in the process achieve little but suffering, stress and anxiety. If this fighting is prolonged, they can invite neurosis and mental instability.

In place of the ego’s desire to control and dominate existence, Zen speaks of cultivating acceptance; of surrender; of harmony with the eternal chain of causation. The ultimate goal is an eternal awakening; a state of perpetual and acute consciousness of the entire universe; being tuned-in to the flow and gracefully moving with it. (The paradox is that while this is a sublime level of personal detachment, it is through this consciousness of eternity that you can also discover much about the true nature of yourself)

The fork between Zen and nihilism rests in yet another ego-delusion; the absurd misconception that we are somehow separate from (and not of) the universe. Even the most basic understanding of the natural world would show that this is not true; that we, animals ourselves, are the product of evolution; that we are comprised of atoms (obviously part of the universe) that have been recycled and reused many times before creating our form, and will be recycled many times more in the future. When we consider the almost impossible time-scale of the universe, it doesn’t take a whole lot of pondering to realise that we are exceedingly transitory – an infinitesimal speck in the grander scheme of the universal flow of matter and the eternal chain of causation.

Once we are cleansed of this delusion that we are somehow strangers in the universe (“here on sufferance or probation”), we begin to understand that we are very much an intrinsic part of it. Our own forms are not fixed or static – we are a process; we grow, we change, we age, we decay – and we are but a small process in a much larger, and infinitely more complex process. We should strive to be aware of this fact. Once we become truly conscious of this idea, the result is a feeling of eternal gratitude, peace, and humility.

If you read the literature of the great religions, time and time again you come across descriptions of what is usually referred to as “spiritual experience.” You will find that in all the various traditions this modality of spiritual experience seems to be the same, whether it occurs in the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East, the Hindu world of Asia, or the Buddhist world. In each culture it is quite definitely the same experience, and it is characterised by the transcendence of individuality and by a sensation of being one with the total energy of the universe.

– Alan Watts, What Is Zen?

(I could segue here into a discussion of the nature of duality and the cross-over between Zen, the accounts of mystics and the use of psychedelics, but I think we’ve tackled more than enough for the time being)

Sure… and how is this useful in defusing depression?

When I conduct thought-experiments with this perspective I find it renders the small waves of my life (such as my recent bouts of depression) as completely inconsequential – not to mention thoroughly short-sighted and self-absorbed. It has the effect of pulling back my point of view so that I can observe impossibly larger tides – and in this contemplation of the universal my small defeats and sadness have their sting removed. Zen acts as a reminder of the appropriate state of being; humility and gratitude; acceptance without anticipation; calm.

My end-goal, of course, is to move far deeper into these frameworks to undercover more useful ideas – but for now my small epiphany as to the practical application of this realisation is more than enough to share and enjoy.

If you’ve read this far I hope this has been in some small way of use or interest.

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A well-spring of positivity

Posted in Poetry, Prose by Lachlan R. Dale on March 27, 2013

My mouth is bitter with the salt of all human things.
I taste our failings; our broken dreams; our yearning and our falls.
We fail more than we know.
We destroy more than we ever show.
We are miserable, grasping, spluttering for air,
And we choke on the poisons we ourselves have let free.
Consumed with contempt, my mind screams.
Banality surrounds me.
Civilisation swallows me.
Let it take me whole.
Let it be done.
But this waiting, it torments me,
Kicking at my heart, mocking my soul.
It cuts me down with ocean breeze;
Batters me with rays of the sun;
Allows me to think that for a minute I have won,
That I will rise up and face the day,
And manage too, to live through the night
– Then the long fall to the dirt;
Humiliation at the hands of the mocking earth.
Let it take me whole.
Let it be over and done.
Give me my final defeat
And let me stifled voice rest free.

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Saṃāna

Posted in Poetry, Prose by Lachlan R. Dale on March 11, 2013

Ascetic BuddhaNo, friends,
I wish you misery.
I wish you a hard death.
I hope when your time comes to die
You die with a sneer and a smile;
Hating the stones, the trees, the dirt, the earth;
Your mouth bitter with the salt of all human things;
Burnt by the sun, frayed by the winds,
Gaunt with starvation,
Hollow-eyed with renunciation,
Hailing curses to the sky for the vultures circling above;
A thin, solitary jackal,
A ragged specter,
A cruel joke,
Misshapen, broken,
Fighting the pull of the void with your last breath,
And failing, finally, falling in.

Drinking starlight

Posted in Poetry, Prose, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on March 10, 2013
The Sower by Van Gogh

The Sower by Van Gogh

At night we rest in open air
Drinking from the light of distant stars,
We cleanse our souls in giants glow
Burning still from eons past.
We listen, perfectly still,
To the forest carry every sound,
Gathering with it warmth of wood,
Damped by the underground,
Silenced, finally, by the
Canopy and heavy air overhead,
We stare into the skies.

As a thin veil moves across
The face of the moon,
My mind begins to wander.
I retreat deeper into myself,
Venturing with the clouds,
Moving inwards with the waves,
I find an illuminated pool
Streaked silver with starlight.
I form an insignificant stream
And draw from the monolith.

In moods likes these we open up
And let the winds ring inside of us;
We drive ourselves into the earth
To feel the resonance of the soil
And be intoxicated by the bloom.
In other times, in nights of the frozen earth,
We fear still the distant cry of wild jaws
And the pitiless freeze of the winter months.
We sing to warm ourselves
So the cold snap might spare our hearts.

I awaken from this vision
With smoke and ash in my lungs.
Returning from the void, silently
We walk from the forest.
Magenta streaks the sky.
We drive on, fearful of the blaze.

Ancients

Posted in Poetry, Prose by Lachlan R. Dale on March 3, 2013

We split the earth and reach toward our god,
Feeding from it’s light.

We drink from underground streams,
Or else we beg for drops of rain.

We are ancient, though refuse speech
In time the wind will move us little.

When ablaze we are reduced
And our dust will feed the soil.

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